It was an undercover operation set in Argentina, 1960. An elite crew of Israeli agents tracked down and secretly kidnapped one of the world’s most notorious war criminals: the Nazi SS officer Adolf Eichmann, who was hiding in Buenos Aires.
Eichmann was among the major organizers of the Holocaust, responsible for transporting millions of European Jews to death camps. The film Operation Finale, starring Ben Kingsley, recounts the daring mission to bring Eichmann to justice.
Kingsley famously played accountant Itzhak Stern in the 1993 film Schindler’s List and Otto Frank in the 2001 miniseries Anne Frank. He also portrayed the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal in the 1989 film Murderers Among Us.
In Operation Finale, his character is seen as the very embodiment of evil. Kingsley tells NPR’s Rachel Martin that his performance in the film is dedicated to the late Nobel laureate, author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.
“Shortly after Wiesel passed away, I was offered this role in Operation Finale,” Kingsley says. “The focus, the strength and the determination to honor Wiesel’s memory carried me through the difficult days on set portraying Eichmann.”
On getting inside the mind of Eichmann
I didn’t — that was the secret. Let’s imagine I’m a portrait artist. This man was in my studio, I had him in one corner, I had my canvas in front of me, and I put him directly onto the canvas. I was not a conduit for him. His ideology was not the guiding force for my performance. The guiding force for my performance was the victims, and his silhouette was molded by their accusation, by their memory, by their reverberating grief — but nothing from that man ever touched me or entered me. I simply transferred his image onto canvas, by that I mean film. He never got close to me, he never got near me, he never infected me.
On portraying a murderous ideology
The tragedy is that these men and women were part of a national movement that mobilized their military, their ideology, their culture, their language, their engineering, to annihilate as many of Europe’s Jews as they could. But these people — however difficult it might be for us to swallow — were human beings. To play them as a two-dimensional comic strip villain or a run-of-the-mill-“baddie” would be to do a terrible disservice to history and the memory of those that they murdered. For the years of extermination between 1933 and 1945, it was men and women who did this. It was not my duty to humanize anything because tragically, it’s already human.
On leaving Eichmann behind
I put down my brushes, I wipe the paint off my hands, I cover my portrait, and I leave my studio. The hard part is that now I’m having to talk about [the film] and it is important that I talk about it. But I can’t give [Eichmann] away to the camera, I can’t give him away to the canvas, and I find talking about it quite difficult. So I’m not done with it. I would rather I was, but I’m not. Somehow the brushes are put back into my hands and I don’t quite know what to do with them. So I’m talking about something that I hope I let go of forever.